The further to the left or the right you move, the more your lens on life distorts.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

The Death of Common Sense

In a wonderful book written over a decade ago, Philip Howard writes about The Death of Common Sense. Howard wrote the book in a simpler time, but his basic premise remains as true today as it was in 1994. To wit: many people, both inside and outside of government are more concerned with process than they are with common-sense results. These people are perfectly happy to go through a set of procedural steps, regardless of how fruitless they may be. As long as the process proceeds according to their rules, they perceive progress.

Howard was writing about the ballooning federal bureaucracy in the US, it’s reliance on sometimes absurd standards and guidelines that can destroy any possibility of real results. But today, I think his basic premise may be applicable to the international situation.

In recent days, a chorus of the usual suspects counsel a rapid return to the bargaining table in the ME. We need to engage our adversaries, they say, understand their story, assuage their pain, and then come to an agreement that will, over time, lead to a peaceful settlement.

They are invested in the process of negotiation and truly believe that it will bear fruit over time. In fact, I sometimes think that they believe that the process of negotiating is a beneficial result in and of itself. Sort of a feel good exercise. But they conveniently forget that this process in the ME has been tried in the 1960s, the 1970s, the 1980s, the 1990s, and into the 21st century. The process has led to “agreements” that have been abrogated repeated by the Arab players in this historical drama. The process does not work (history’s verdict, not mine) when one side is consumed with Islamofacist hatred of the Jew and other infidels in its midst.

Maybe it’s time to take at look at the process and change the rules that govern it. Maybe it’s time to examine the players who will participate in the process, and ask whether there is any historical evidence that they can be trusted to keep their word. Maybe its time to delay the process until realities on the ground indicate that there is even a shred of hope that the process will succeed – not in being conducted, for surely that will happen – but in producing meaningful results in an historical context.

But the chorus of usual suspects who promote the reapplication of process includes intellectuals and academics, senators and past Secretaries of State, ex-Presidents and the Vatican – an august group indeed. They suggest a process that they believe will provide us with a map (road map, anyone?) to navigate through these difficult times. And yet, maybe they’re wrong.

Bill Whittle has some interesting things to say about this kind of navigation:
Navigation by means of reason and logic, taking sightings from historical landmarks and always keeping the firm hand of common sense on the wheel, can steer us clear of these dangerous and confusing shoals. This sort of thinking, what is essentially scientific thinking, is a new tool, relatively speaking. It is a powerful tool, one that makes powerful demands of us, asking us to forgo pride and ego and preconception. It asks us, as blind men and women in the darkness of the present, to walk into the future not by imagining a map that is to our liking, but rather to learn to navigate like bats and dolphins, pinging our surroundings, interrogating nature and history at every turn, finding fixed points of reference that we can use to triangulate where we are and where we are headed ….

There was a time when intellectual meant someone who uses reason and intellect. Today, people who call themselves intellectuals are in a form of mental death spiral: they search for, and find, those index cards that support their world view, and clutch little red books like rosaries in the face of all external evidence. They are ruled by appeals to authority. Their self-image and sense of emotional well-being trumps any and all objective evidence to the contrary.

Many (perhaps most) things these intellectuals believe are so wrong, in so many places, that they are far worse than no maps at all. They draw all manner of hazards where there are none, and disastrously, they show open seas and smooth sailing in the most treacherous and deadly places. Such maps are not merely worthless; they are dangerous. Ronald Reagan once said that the problem is not that these intellectual social theorists are ignorant; "it's just so much of what they know isn't so."